A Beast Approaches


The following story is set in the White Realm roughly two and a half years before the White War, which is a few months after the last war against the Beasts. It follows a group of ordinary citizens from Colgrad who go off to the woods of Col to fight a terrible Beast.


Chapter One - Dark Night

The rain was falling heavily, and most people were in their homes at this hour. It was late evening in the city of Colgrad and the darkening sky had opened a few hours earlier, a torrent of rain pouring forth. Leod could hear the sound of his boots thumping and splashing on the rain-slick cobblestones and feel his heart pounding in his chest. But he did not dare look back; even now that he had reached the city. He ran on until he arrived at the tavern.

Leod burst through the wooden door of the tavern, causing everyone inside to look up with a start. As he stood on the threshold, dripping water from his heavy cloak, rain sheeting down behind him, he said in an urgent voice “I come seeking help. There is a beast in the woods of Col and none of us are safe.” As if to punctuate this statement there was a deep roll of thunder.

Most of the tavern’s patrons sat there, struck dumb. Leod shouted breathlessly “Are you too cowardly to even help yourselves?” Some of the tougher or drunker individuals voiced objections to being called cowards, but none made a move to do anything.

Then an older man, perhaps in his mid forties, Leod thought, sitting further inside the tavern said “Calm down lad. Close that door and come sit down and catch your breath. Tell us what’s goin’ on. The racket you’re makin’ is un-nervin’ folks.”

Leod sighed and closed the tavern door, the heavy wood clunking as it slammed shut. The rain could still be heard hammering down outside. Leod eyed the tavern as he walked towards the old man at the table, seeing all the people watching him cautiously. He sat down, taking several deep breaths. Leod said “Like I said before, there is something in the woods, and we need to raise a hunting party. We need to do it now, before it’s too late.”

The old man nodded and said “Ok, tell me exactly what happened.”

He had a calm expression, and for his age he seemed tough. Leod thought, he might have been a soldier or something. Leod began recounting his story “I was part of a logging party in the woods. We had been felling trees all day, but the logging captain wanted us to work on to meet our quota. Some of the others were nervous about that, saying there was a strange feeling in the air. We worked on, and had to camp in the woods for the night. That’s when it happened…” Leod trailed off, looking into the candle which flickered on the table.

By this time several other patrons had gathered around the table, holding their tankards. And others sat at their tables, listening intently. The old man urged “Go on lad, we’re listenin’.”

Leod continued “There were twelve of us in the logging party, including myself and the captain. We had set a fire, the canopy of the trees sheltering it from the rain. Most were asleep, with four of us still awake around the fire. Davon kept saying he could hear something, but we didn’t listen to him. How I wish we had listened to him, because he was right. I didn’t see what it was, it moved with such speed, but a shape, a shadow leapt from the darkness and Davon was the first to die. It tore him apart and then laid into the captain before we even reacted. The screams, they… I’ve never heard anyone in such agony.”

There were murmurs from the crowd, and a few returned to the bar to get stiffer drinks. Leod looked pale, even with the light of the candle flickering on his face. The old man spoke “Take your time lad. It seems you’ve been through a lot tonight.”

Leod nodded slowly, and began again “The others stirred, but some too late, killed before they could even get off the ground. In frantic seconds only three of us were left. We ran. It was all we could do. We, we couldn’t fight that thing, that monster. We had no proper weapons, we were not soldiers. I ran as fast as my legs would go, faster even. I didn’t look back, and I just prayed the beast would be too busy with the dead to chase me. As I ran I heard a scream, and I knew that one of the others had been caught. When I reached the eaves of the wood, there was another shout, followed by an unearthly howl. I never thought I’d make it here alive. But I did, didn’t I? I survived because they all died.” Leod’s head sunk into his hands, as he tried to forget that howl.

The older man put his hand on Leod’s shoulder reassuringly and said “Easy now lad, you’re safe now.” Standing up the older man looked around the group of patrons and said “It’s clear to me what we have to do. We must form a hunting party and go into the woods. This beast must be stopped. For now we’ve got to get some rest, so spread the word. I’m goin’ into those woods with young Leod here tomorrow at first light. I want volunteers and any man who values his family and home should think right careful about leaving this creature alive for longer than needed.” The man seemed to have an air of authority, or so Leod thought. Some men nodded as they listened, and others shuffled nervously. Leod wondered how many would help, or if he would go to his death with an old man who he didn’t even know.

As the people left the tavern for their homes the tavern keeper came over to the table and said to Leod “I’ll let you stay the night here. I’ll call you before first light.” He nodded in the direction of the older man and added “Corvil stays here anyway so you’ll be able to get a quick start. Good luck to both of you, and I hope some others will help you. If I didn’t have this tavern to run I’d come with you.” Then he went off to start clearing the tables.

Leod asked Corvil “Would he really help?”

Corvil chuckled and replied “Horen would help. He doesn’t look it now, but when he was younger he was a bare-knuckle fighter. He’d help, but he’s needed more here than in those woods. Get some rest lad, it won’t be long until we see what mornin’ will bring.”

Leod nodded and followed one of the servants to his room, collapsing into fitful sleep.

Chapter Two - To the Hunt

Awaking with a start, Leod saw that it was still some time before dawn. He decided to get up, as he could not sleep any more. He headed out of the room and down the corridor of the tavern. Leod rubbed his eyes to bring his vision properly into focus before walking down the stairs into the bar area. He saw Corvil already sitting at a table heartily tucking into his breakfast. Leod joined him and the older man nodded and smiled as he continued eating. Leod was nervous, yet resolute. Even though he was afraid of going into the woods he would not turn away from his course. He felt that it was necessary. Horen came from the kitchen with food for Leod and set it down on the table. Leod looked up and said “Thank you.”

After they had finished their breakfast they said goodbye to Horen and the others who worked at the tavern and headed off to a small courtyard with a simple stone well. Corvil had arranged for any willing to join them on the hunt to meet here. Leod walked along the stone covered streets, seeing the courtyard just ahead. There was a small arch of stone between two buildings, and the courtyard lay beyond. While Leod could see the well in its central position he could not see anyone as the buildings blocked his line of sight. But he took this as a bad omen, thinking that no one had even bothered to turn up. As they walked closer Corvil said “Have you used a sword before lad?”

The question caught Leod off-guard and he stammered “Uh, well, umm… no, I haven’t. But I use an axe all the time, I’m sure it won’t be much different right?”

Corvil chuckled and said “It’s a bit different Leod, but don’t worry. I’ll give you some instruction as we go.”

Leod nodded slowly and followed Corvil through the archway into the courtyard. The buildings loomed above him, reminding him of the trees as he raced through the woods to escape the beast. And even though he was afraid, a small spark grew inside him. It was as if a voice was speaking, getting louder and bolder. Leod knew that he could do this. As he passed through to the open courtyard he heard voices, and saw the group of men who were standing to one side of the small courtyard. He did not recognise them from the other night, but Leod had taken little notice of what anyone looked like in his panicked and confused state.

Corvil said “Good, good. I’d hoped some of you would turn up. We’ll get goin’ soon. But first let’s see who we’ve got with us on this little jaunt, eh?”

The men stepped out of the huddle and formed a ragged line. It was like a captain inspecting his troops, Leod mused, as Corvil walked up and down the line nodding and clasping his hands behind his back as he paced. Leod looked at the men and wondered who they were, why they were going to the hunt and if they would be enough. As Corvil stood before them Leod stepped forward and asked respectfully “So, who are you all?”

The first man in the line was a thin looking individual with a mop of brown hair; a brown cloak was draped around his shoulders. He looked at Leod with keen, yet kind eyes and said “I am Gregor. This is my brother Havol.” He indicated the next man in the line who bore a slight resemblance to him and also wore a cloak but of a different colour. They both had short swords at their waists and short bows in hand. Their quivers hung from a strap across their bodies, sitting at the other side to their swords. Gregor continued “We are both hunters and skilled with the bow. We’ll see this thing dead and no mistake.”

Leod nodded to each in turn and looked at the third man. Leod had to look twice as the third man was like a giant. Well over six foot the man said with a voice which showed little emotion “I am Viktor. I am apprentice blacksmith to the Droggan smithy. My master often tells me that a good blacksmith knows not just how to make weapons, but how to use them. When word reached us last night my master said this was the perfect job for me.” Leod nodded, his jaw was slack as he was lost for words. Not only was the man tall, but muscled from his work. One of his hands rested on the haft of a two-handed axe. He wore a leather hauberk, with a plain shirt underneath.

The man on the other side of Viktor had a mean look about him, almost vicious, Leod thought. He leaned against the wall of the building surrounding the courtyard and simply said in a sneer “Name’s Mardon. And I’m only here to kill this thing to try and get a reward for its carcass.” Leod was surprised at the man’s honesty, or at least his straightforward manner for claiming his selfish reason for taking part in the hunt. Leod noted that a longsword hung from Mardon’s belt and across his chest on two belts several knives were sheathed. Leod did not like the look of this man at all.

The next man stood forward and said “My name is Blaige. I was a member of the militia during the recent war with the beasts, so I’m sure I can help you. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let Mardon use this noble quest as an excuse to earn gold.” Both men glared at each other and it was clear to Leod that they despised each other. Mardon looked away muttering something under his breath. Blaige wore fine leather armour, including bracers and a hauberk. There was an impressive looking longsword in a scabbard at Blaige’s waist. It had clearly been finely crafted.

The last three individuals introduced themselves in short order. Their names were Keglan, Jarvis and Corran. Keglan and Jarvis had been at the tavern last night, and having heard Leod’s story and having great respect for Corvil, the two had decided to join in the hunt. Keglan was a brawny man about the same age as Leod, in his early twenties, and was a labourer. He had borrowed a spear from his father and had a sturdy short sword of his own. Jarvis was thin and wiry, and had a nervous energy about him. The man never seemed to stand still. He carried a simple bow and a quiver of arrows, along with a long knife in a sheath at his side. Corran’s story was a bit different. He said “I’m looking for a challenge. So here I am.” Corran seemed the best equipped of the lot. He had a chainmail shirt, leather bracers and greaves as well as plate pauldrons. He carried a two-handed sword on a scabbard across his back, with a cloak fastened to his armour, covering the scabbard so that only the hilt of the mighty sword could be seen over his shoulder.

Corvil spoke “Well, now we’ve been introduced we best get goin’.” Turning to Leod he said “I’ve got a sword for you in my pack. We can go over a few things while we walk.” The older man took the pack off his shoulder and put it on the edge of the well, opening it and rummaging about. After a moment he pulled out a short sword in a scabbard and handed the weapon to Leod.

Leod took it in both hands and said “Thank you Corvil. I’ll look after it well.”

Corvil nodded with a smile on his face “Of course you will. I wouldn’t be givin’ swords out if I didn’t think you’d take care of them. Remember lad, if you look after a weapon, it’ll look after you.” Corvil himself had a sword attached to his belt and a bow and quiver over one shoulder. He turned to the group and said in a loud and clear voice “Alright lads, let’s do some huntin’.”

With that the group of hunters began to walk from the city of Colgrad towards the woods. They left the stone protection of the city behind, heading into grasslands as they made their way to the woods of Col, a dark smudge on the horizon. Ten men each with their own reasons to hunt this beast, some with reasons they would not discuss. All walked cautiously into the very jaws of death.

Chapter Three - Along the Way

The group had been walking for around ten minutes when they heard shouting. Looking back they could see a man running towards them from the city. Corvil called a halt and Leod looked back as the figure came into focus as he ran towards them. The man ran up to the group and stopped, taking heavy breaths as he tried to find the words to speak. He finally said “Sorry I’m late, but I was held up at home. I’m going with you Corvil.”

Corvil replied “If you’re sure you want to Karl. This is going to be dangerous.”

Karl stood up straight and said “I can handle myself, and after the stories you’ve told me I’m not going to miss out on an adventure like this.”

Leod frowned and said “What stories Corvil?”

Corvil shook the question off “No need to go into that now Leod, just old stories. If everyone is ready now, we must keep going.” He turned and moved off at the front of the group, leaving Leod standing slightly confused beside the new man, Karl, as he finished catching his breath. They followed in the rear.

Karl was a few years younger than Leod it seemed, but he must have been from a more wealthy family as he had a hand axe and buckler of his own, along with a couple of light javelins. He wore a sturdy jerkin of boiled leather as well. Leod fell into step with him and introduced himself “I’m Leod. I was the one who saw the beast.”

Karl nodded and said “I’m Karl, I’m a stonemason. So you survived an encounter with the beast then? You must be a great warrior.”

Leod laughed, saying “No, I’m just a woodcutter. I just ran with some of the others from the logging party, but I was the only one who got away.” His smile faded quickly, as he thought back to the other night. For a while they walked on in silence. The ground was fairly flat and even here, although the grass was thick, and the dew on it gathered on Leod’s boots and trousers as he walked. Remembering his journey last night Leod could tell that they were still far from the eaves of the woods, at least five miles as the crow flies.

Havol glanced back at Leod and Karl and slowed down to speak with them. Leod was sure it was Havol and not his brother Gregor because the man wore a grey cloak. Leod remembered that Gregor’s cloak was a dark brown, like the bark of the trees. Havol said to him “Leod, what did the beast look like?”

Leod sighed and answered “I don’t know. It was so dark and everything happened so fast that it was just a shape. It was certainly big, bigger than a man. And those eyes, they seemed to glow red in the dark. I fear we’ll see it clearly soon enough.”

Havol nodded and responded “Aye, that’s true. I just hope we can get this thing before it gets us.”

Karl added “But isn’t this exciting? An adventure, a quest, I think this will be great!” He was almost clapping his hands in glee.

Leod looked down at his feet as he walked, trying to ignore Karl’s romanticised ideas about adventures. Havol was about to say something when Corvil called out along the line “Gregor, Havol come up to the front. I want you two to scout ahead a bit, see what you can see ok?”

The two men agreed and rushed up to the front, their cloaks flowing behind them, before ranging off ahead of the group. Leod wondered what Corvil thought the hunters would see when they were still far from the woods. Again the group trudged on in silence. It was ten minutes or more before Leod realised that the man now walking ahead of him was Mardon. Leod had been disturbed by the man’s cold eyes when everyone had introduced themselves and the atmosphere between Mardon and Blaige. Before he could continue his train of thought, he was interrupted.

Mardon had fallen back beside him almost silently and said “So Corvil’s taken you under his wing has he? Don’t trust the old man, he’s not the nice guy he seems.”

Leod was slightly stunned, both by Mardon’s sudden appearance at his left side and what he had said. So far Corvil had been nothing but helpful. But as Leod thought about it, had he been too helpful? He replied “What do you mean Mardon? Corvil was the only one who was willing to help me. And without him none of you would have turned up, I’ve no doubt.”

Mardon sighed and said with a sneer “Believe what you will, but I know what Corvil is really about. I can’t talk freely here, but just watch your back.” He stomped off ahead and Leod noted that even when he emphasised his footsteps he made little noise. Mardon was certainly a dangerous one, and yet what he had said gave Leod pause for thought. As Leod looked up at the group ahead he saw a stern look upon the face of Blaige, who had obviously seen Mardon talking to Leod.

Time passed as they walked on, and finally when they were just a hundred metres or so from the eaves of the woods, Corvil called the group to a halt. He looked at them all and said “We’ll stop here for a while. Catch your breath and take a load off lads, before we go too far. Get your weapons ready.” As the others dumped their packs, or checked their bows and other tasks, Corvil walked over to Leod and said “Best show you how to use that thing then.” He nodded in the direction of the sword in Leod’s scabbard.

Leod nodded with a weak smile and said “I suppose you better.” For a while Corvil and Leod sparred with their swords, the older man imparting some good, solid instruction without complicating the matter with more advanced techniques. Leod would need to be able to use the sword, but as he would not be facing another opponent with a sword the instruction was much more basic, revolving around defending from a variety of swipes and getting past a defence.

When Corvil decided that Leod had been given enough training he let the group rest for a while longer. It was only a few hours since sunrise so the group was in no rush to enter the woods of Col. They would have plenty of time and light to find the beast and slay it. Finally they prepared themselves to enter the eaves of the woods, and they stood shoulder to shoulder before they marched onward. Corvil stood in the centre of the line, his sword in one hand, looking every bit the grizzled veteran of combat. To his left and right were Gregor and Havol, bows at the ready, keen eyes searching ahead of them. Towering next to Havol was Viktor, silent and steady, his axe gripped tightly in his meaty hands. And beside Gregor stood the lean form of Mardon, a look of disdain on his face, and the flat of his longsword resting against his shoulder. Karl and Leod stood both nervously and excitedly next to Viktor, while Blaige and Corran, looking as noble as knights seemed to be keeping an eye on Mardon each. Keglan was with them, his spear jutting out ahead of him. Jarvis was beside Leod, his bow clutched in his left hand. Every few seconds he would turn his head this way or that, and his eyes darted about. Leod wondered if he was nervous, or just naturally so fidgety.

And so the group began to walk forward into the trees, a ragged line of a ragged band, yet noble in their purpose and perhaps if things went ill, their sacrifice.

Chapter Four - Bark and Bite

They had entered the woods from roughly the same point which Leod had left from, he was sure of that. The camp would be less than a mile away to the north-west. The group moved cautiously, most with their ranged weapons at the ready. It did not take long for Gregor to spot some tracks. He squatted down beside the marks on the ground and said “The animal which made these was large and fast judging by the indentations. But I can’t tell what it is from these. It looks almost like a wolf’s tracks, but far too large for any kind of wolf I’ve seen before. And there’s only one set of tracks, the wolves in these parts are almost always in packs. It’s, strange…”

Corvil stood over him and said “It must be the beast then. Follow the tracks, we couldn’t have hoped for a quicker trail.” He seemed almost eager in Leod’s eyes.

Gregor nodded and the group began to move again, with Gregor taking point. A couple of times the tracks turned both south-west then back north-west, meandering almost like a river. After an hour of carefully following the tracks, Gregor called the group to a halt. He stood to one side of the tracks, looking pale and more than a little sick. The others moved up and Leod saw at once what was wrong with Gregor. He had found the remains of one of the logging party. It was just lumps of ragged flesh, smeared with blood, which was slick around the roots of a tree and the leaves upon the ground. Leod turned away, trying to fight the smell from his nostrils. What turned his gut most was that he could not identify the bloody mess; there just was not enough left. The group gathered their confidence and their wits and continued on the trail. The camp would be a short distance ahead and Leod knew they would find more of the same once they reached the clearing. As they travelled Leod wondered why he had escaped but the other two runners had not. Surely the beast could only have chased down one of them? Leod thought. He knew that when he began running that night he had chosen a direction and not wavered from it. He had dodged and weaved through the trees, but had headed always to the south-east, in the direction of Colgrad, and safety. Did the others run in blind panic changing their direction to try and throw off pursuit? He wondered. Leod was sure that would have been a bad move, as a predator like this would be able to track by scent easily enough.

The group moved on in utter silence, part of which was from the horror they had just witnessed, part from a sense of foreboding which fell upon them as they travelled further into the woods. The sun was sitting lazily in the sky, with few clouds about and the light streamed through the branches of the trees, dancing across the surface of armour and blade as they moved as stealthily as men can. Gradually the trees thinned more, giving them room to walk several metres distant until they suddenly found themselves in the clearing. They stopped, looking around at the clearing and seeing everything which lay on the ground there. If there had been any who had not balked at the sight of one of the men ‘lucky’ enough to run then they were truly shocked now. The utter savagery struck each man like an arrow to the chest, as they gawped, slack-jawed at the remains of the campsite. The fire had died long before, ash all that was left of the firewood. Lying beside the fire were pots, bowls, the shredded tatters of blankets and bedrolls. And everything had a deep, red sheen to it. So thick was the dripping, viscous blood that it was impossible to discern where the blood was from, or which direction it had landed from. Leod and the others stepped into a morass made of dead men, a quagmire of wholesale slaughter, and they were all shaken to their core. Except two, Leod noted with a shiver. He looked at them both in turn, seeing two very different things. Mardon took the clearing in with that same cold look of disdain, so very dead, Leod thought. Then he turned to Corvil, who surveyed the scene with a grim expression, jaw set firmly, cogs clearly turning over in his mind. Looking every bit the grizzled veteran, Leod concluded.

At length Blaige said “We must go on, we must go through the camp to follow the trail. Gregor, Havol, find the freshest trail for us to follow.” The others hesitated, until Corvil nodded slowly in agreement.

Keglan murmured “I think we should leave. This place is a death trap. We need more people, we need soldiers.”

Mardon nodded and said “He’s right, nothing’s right about this place. How do we even know the beast is alone?” As he said this he shot Corvil a murderous look.

Corvil raised his voice “Don’t tell me you’re scared Mardon? Everyone get moving now!” Most of the others began searching the campsite for the trails of the beast, leaving Corvil, Leod, Keglan and Mardon at the edge of the clearing. After a sharp look from Corvil, Keglan headed into the clearing after the others. But Mardon refused to budge, staring back at the old man unflinchingly. Corvil turned away first, moving off towards the centre of the camp and the remains of the fire.

Mardon said sidelong to Leod “You see, he’d rather get us all killed than listen to us.”

Leod frowned and replied “I don’t know.”

Mardon sneered “You’ll know before we leave, I’m sure of that.”

Leod turned on the man quickly and said “Was that a veiled threat?”

Mardon walked away shaking his head “No, I just know things that you don’t… yet.”

Before Leod could continue the conversation Havol called out that he had found the most recent tracks, heading into the camp and then leaving. Presumably this was from when the beast returned after chasing down the two runners before heading back to its lair. Hopefully they could find it and slay it quickly and get out of these horrible woods before long.

The group moved on, but Leod could sense a sort of rift between them. It was growing between the ones who followed Corvil without question and wanted to press on, and those who had doubts about continuing given what they had witnessed before even seeing this beast. The group followed the trail, and they noticed the trees were densely packed here. After almost an hour of following the trail the ground began to change, becoming harder and more stony than earthen. Almost without warning the trees had given way to a small rocky crevasse and they were walking into it, following what was left of the trail. Havol and Gregor were at the front and they stopped the group. Leod moved closer so he could hear them, as the wind had picked up. Perhaps the crevasse is acting like a funnel for the wind, he thought.

Havol raised his voice, calling out so everyone could hear “It seems likely that the beast’s lair is somewhere in this crevasse, either in a dead end or a cave somewhere. But its quite narrow here, and with a sharp turn about thirty metres in. We’ll have to travel single file to begin with and we won’t be able to see until we reach the turn. The bows won’t be any use here, draw your blades.” Everyone did as instructed. Havol continued “Keglan, I’m taking point but I want you second in the line with your spear.” The brawny man nodded and shuffled passed the others until he was behind Havol. The men got themselves in order and began to move slowly and carefully into the crevasse.

Leod kept up with the others as they moved, hefting the sword in his hand. Even with his profession as a woodcutter the sword felt unfamiliar. They walked on in silence. It was slow going, even more so due to them travelling single file, and the ground here was rock, leaving no footprints to follow. The scouts turned their keen eyes to other signs of an animal’s passing. They eventually reached the turn, and Havol halted the group as he checked what was ahead. Coming back a few moments later he waved the group on. Leod kept moving, and when he turned the corner he saw what Havol had found. From here the pass expanded out fairly widely, and through some twists and turns the sides of the crevasse flattened out into the low hills beyond before rejoining the flat of the forest again. Leod said “Well, at least we don’t have to walk in single file anymore.”

Viktor, who stood behind Leod, engulfing the smaller man in shadow, replied “Yes, I’ll be able to stretch my legs a bit more.”

The group began to move again, a little more at ease now that they had more room to move. They travelled onwards for almost an hour. They had seen little to indicate where the beast could be. They turned another corner and found themselves in a bowl-like area, with at least two recesses in the rock face which could be small caves. As they walked into the centre of this area, Leod began to notice a distinct smell, like raw meat, the tang of blood and the sharp smell of urine. Slowly he said “I… I don’t like the looks of this.” As he said this, the others nodded and they all heard the low growling emitting from the recesses and further into the crevasse. Then they heard a howl, followed by a second and joined by a third.

Havol said simply “Wolves.”

As the group of men took up a defensive posture, shuffling their feet both nervously and in anticipation of attack, the wolf pack slowly slinked out of the shadows. There were at least twelve wolves between those ahead of them and those to either side. Leod could see their snarling snouts, saliva dripping from vicious looking fangs, stained pink from whatever they had been eating. Each one was the size of a large dog, their thick legs tensed, ready to attack. Something else drew Leod’s attention, and he looked up past the wolves, to one of the sides of the crevasse. There the rocks evened out before sweeping down the far side into the low hills. Leod saw the dark shape, as if it had just stepped out of a nightmare, the beast just standing there watching. Leod and the beast locked eyes, and what Leod saw there was more terrifying than anything yet. He saw intelligence, not just animal cunning, but something much more. And in that instant Leod knew that the beast had lured them here, it had set a trap.

He watched the beast turn and slowly walk away until it was out of sight; as if it had grown bored or was convinced they were already dead. Some of the others had seen the beast as well, and now they knew what it was they faced. Leod tightened his grip on the sword he held, and shifted his focus to the nearest wolf. They were still snarling, baring their fangs. It was understandable, as the group of hunters had blundered into their territory. Perhaps the wolf pack even considered them to be like an invading rival pack.

Mardon said “Look out.” But too late, they saw the first wolf leap at them, followed closely by the others.

Havol raised his sword arm, but too slow to strike a blow. The wolf bit into his arm with its powerful jaws, shaking its head in frenzy. Havol screamed out in pain, but he could not stop the wolf. Luckily his brother Gregor was close by and he hacked down across the back of the wolf’s neck, carving a deep gouge in its hide. The wolf slumped down to the ground, bleeding heavily but still alive. Gregor closed his eyes for an instant, sighed and then put the animal out of its misery. He looked at the horrible wound on his brother’s arm, and said “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Corvil shouted out as he used his sword to keep a pair of wolves at bay “No! If we break and run now they’ll chase us down and dog us until we’re dead. Hold your ground!”

Blaige moved out from the group, holding his longsword firmly in both hands. As two wolves ran at him, he swept the blade from left to right in one quick motion. The wolves seemed to run past him, and then both slid to the ground dead. He was a skilled swordsman, but even he could not handle what happened next. Seeing two of their wolf pack taken down so easily three more wolves broke off and lunged at Blaige. One jumped on his back, knocking the man forward to one knee while a second viciously bit into his upper leg and the third gripped his forearm. His leather armour protected his arm, but his leg was ravaged. Viktor used his strength, along with his mighty axe to cleave down the wolf biting Blaige’s leg, then the one trying to chew through his leather bracer. Twisting his body, Viktor swung his axe, cutting down the third wolf which leapt at him.

Leod himself fended off a wolf, and together with Keglan using his spear, Leod was able to stab his sword into the wolf’s chest, finishing it off with a downward strike. With so many of the pack dead, the wolves howled in defeat and fled further into the crevasse as quickly as they could, tails between their legs. The men picked themselves up, looking to the two wounded. Havol would not be able to use his bow now, but once the wound was wrapped he would be ok, using his sword in his other hand. Blaige was another matter. His leg was bleeding heavily, and even if they could stop the blood flow and tidy up the wound he would not be able to move easily. Leod stood beside him and said “Some of you saw the beast didn’t you?”

They nodded and Keglan said “Aye, I saw the thing. It seemed to be wrapped in shadow though, I didn’t see clearly what it was just that it was there.”

Leod said “I looked that beast in the eyes. It led us into this trap.”

Corvil laughed, as did some of the others “Well, I don’t know about that lad. There’s no need to go givin’ it more credit than it’s due. Just bad luck I say, and worse that it was trackin’ us as well.”

Leod shook his head vehemently “It did lead us into a trap. I could see it in the beast’s eyes, it was smart. Smart like a man is, not like an animal. But two can play at that game. I’ve got a plan.”

Chapter Five - Moth to a Flame

Leod took charge of the group, and led them away from the crevasse, even taking them as far back as the clearing and the ruins of the campsite. He moved with a purpose now, it was as if he knew exactly what he was doing. When they reached the campsite Leod turned to face the others, a steely look in his eyes. As they gathered around, Leod began to detail his plan. He said “It seems clear that we need a plan. Tracking the beast failed, it led us into a trap. We need to fight smart, fight smarter than the beast.”

Corvil began to say “I still don’t think this beast could form a trap.”

But he was talked over by Mardon “What’s your plan Leod?”

Keglan nodded “Aye, tell us the plan Leod.”

Leod saw the dark look on Corvil’s face, but there were more important things than feelings now. Leod cleared his throat and said “When the beast attacked the logging party it must have been attracted to the fire. But once it attacked it moved around the fire, avoiding it. We’re going to use a fire to lure the beast in. If we keep close to the fire facing out we can be ready no matter where it attacks. We’ll make traps around the camp and perimeter. This is where we make our stand. We lure it in and kill it, simple as that.”

Corvil put his hands on his hips and said “Simple as that is it?”

Corran interjected “I think it’s a sound plan. It limits our risk and gives us the advantage. Gregor, get your brother and Blaige patched up. Viktor, Corvil, get a fire ready, it needs to be large. The rest of you, I’ll show you how to build real traps. We need this done before nightfall, let’s get to work.”

The group set to work as the afternoon wore on. They gathered wood, leaves and other materials which Corran indicated. Leod knew that Corran was a warrior, but he did not know how Corran knew how to make traps like these or about tactics and strategies. It was like he was some sort of seasoned campaigner.

It took several hours, but eventually Leod’s plan was in place. It was evening now; the sky was dark above the camp clearing. The woods around them were dark, only the flickering of the fire providing contrast to their view of the trees around them. The fire was large and gave off a strong heat but the chill of the wind was stronger. They had created traps following Corran’s direction with help from Gregor and Havol who were both hunters. There were snares, tripwires, some punji sticks, a knife trap and a deadfall trap. Spaced out around the perimeter these traps would hopefully cause a hindrance to the beast and maybe even kill it. Beyond that Leod prayed the traps would drive the beast into the clearing where they could kill it. The group ate in pairs, two men eating while the rest kept watch on the tree line. Havol and Gregor had their bows at the ready and stood at the north side of the fire. On the south side of the fire Jarvis sat with his bow beside Karl with his light javelins. The other men were spaced out around the fire in a loose circle.

As they watched and waited for the beast to be drawn to the fire, a nervous atmosphere played over the group of men. For a moment it was dispelled as Karl piped up “Why don’t we sing a song to raise our spirits?”

There was a collective groan from the others and Blaige slapped a hand to his forehead and shook his head in exasperation. Keglan said “You sing a note Karl and you’ll get hit.” Leod and Jarvis chuckled, although Leod could tell from his laugh that Jarvis was still very nervous.

Corvil cut in “Quiet down, this ain’t a campin’ trip.” They passed the time in silence from this point on and Leod wondered why Corvil had become so bad tempered since they had entered the woods of Col.

Time was moving slowly, as it always appeared to do when waiting for something to happen. Leod could tell that some of the others were getting more nervous as the seconds passed. Others were growing impatient or angry at the supposed lack of success the plan was having. All of them except Corran… and Mardon. Both men seemed calm, alert, convinced that Leod’s plan would work. They sat on, seconds turning to minutes. It was growing later and later, the moon becoming clearer in the sky. Perhaps the plan would fail; perhaps the beast was already assuming that the wolves had killed them. All of these thoughts bounced around his head, jostling for position.

Suddenly they heard the beast. It was a sound to make hearts freeze in abject terror, to make throats seize in fear, and make limbs heavy and leaden through horror. It began like a barking snarl and then rose into a blood-curdling, spine-tingling howl which seemed to go on for an eternity. The beast’s howl was horrendous and seemed to make some of the trees on the northern edge of the clearing shake and rustle. There were shouts from the assembled men “Where is it?”

“I can’t see it.”

“Shoot it, shoot now!”

“This is madness.”

“Hold your fire; don’t shoot until you see the thing.”

“Stay ready, stay calm.”

“Calm? That’s bloody easy for you to say!”

Leod could barely work out who was saying what between the shouting, the beast’s roaring, and all the while he was trying to keep his wits and keep his nerve. The sounds blurred into each other and all that he was sure of was that the beast was having this effect on them. He shouted as loud as he could “Shut up! Stay calm, the beast is trying to confuse and distract us!”

The beast seemed to realise what was going on. Suddenly it stopped howling, creating a silence which was just as terrifying. The trees to the north slowly stopped swaying. All of the assembled men watched the trees around them; quickly feeling boxed in and trapped despite the openness of the clearing, the scope of the woods around them. Their eyes roved back and forth searching for a glimpse of the beast. Leod gripped his sword firmly, ignoring the sweat growing on his palms. Nervously they waited and Leod wondered if the beast was drawing this out on purpose, trying to weaken their resolve. He stiffened at the thought, bristling with unabashed fury. Leod had come too far, he had put too much into this endeavour. As far as he was concerned there was no turning back, his resolve was only strengthening.
Leod was only of average height, around five feet seven. His green eyes shone in the flickering light cast by the dancing fire. His short sandy-coloured hair was close to his scalp, and slightly matted from the days exertions. Leod had often been described as having a friendly and cheerful face, a helpful and approachable attitude. Leod could feel that had changed. His face had taken on a harshness; he could sense it like a tightness in his skin. As if he was physically stretched to match his mental condition. He was stretched to the limits. His cheeks felt gaunt, the skin under his chin felt like it was in a permanent but non-restricting chokehold. He was waiting for the beast to do something, waiting for it to make a move. They could do nothing; they were fixed to the plan. They were the bait for the trap. The beast had to spring that trap, the beast had to give them the opening. It was the beast’s turn to be proactive while the men pretended to be reactive. Leod hoped they were one step ahead of the beast.

Suddenly to the south there was a crack of a piece of wood followed by the whoosh of air and a thumping impact, interspersed with a sharp cry of pain. The deadfall trap had done its work it seemed, the tripwire had been sited near a twig. That way the men would hear the twig at the same time as the tripwire was knocked. Each of them tensed, unsure of whether to go out and check or stay where they were. Corran made the point clear “Stay where you are. It might only be wounded.”

“Shouldn’t we go out and finish it off then?” Viktor asked.

Corran shook his head “No, we have to let it come to us.” He kept his sword at the ready, but remained stationary, as still as a statue. Nerve-wracking seconds past and nobody uttered a sound above their breathing. They could hear movement, the padding of animal paws on the forest floor, rustling of bushes, and the sounds of the beast breathing, growling low and vicious. Without warning the beast burst into view and charged headlong at them. It was like a blur, a black, malice-fuelled shadow racing about, intent on nothing short of butchery. Havol and Gregor tried to turn and fire, everything seemed to slow to Leod’s eyes, and he felt glued to the spot. The two hunters loosed their arrows but both went wide, Havol coming closer, missing the beast by a hair’s breadth. The arrows hit the trunks of trees far behind.

“Damn!” Shouted Gregor as he tried to move around the fire and ready another arrow at the same time.

Jarvis, who was on the same side of the fire as the rapidly approaching beast, fumbled with his bow and then fired. The arrow struck the beast in the shoulder with a meaty thwack which elicited a yowl of agony from the beast, but still it ran on, only slowing slightly. Its blood was up, adrenaline making it fight through the pain. As it ran, Leod could see the odd gait of its hind leg, thinking for sure that it must have been hit by the deadfall trap in that leg only. Jarvis let out a grunt of success and reached for another arrow. It was the last thing he ever did. The beast leapt at him, knocking him flat, and in an instant, clamped its jaws around his head. There was a horrific cracking, crunching sound and the squealing screaming of Jarvis was cut short.

Leod snapped out of his stupor and charged at the beast, raising his sword. But the beast had acute senses, and kicked out, knocking him aside. Keglan shouted out in anger “Jarvis! It killed Jarvis!” He ran at the beast with his spear but it rushed away, knocking Karl aside and leaving Keglan flat-footed. It dodged to one side, avoiding the huge fire and bounded over Corran. He tried to stab upwards with his sword, but was just seconds too slow. The beast collided with Havol, rolling with the startled man. The hunter stood little chance. One of his legs and several ribs were broken in the collision. Still he managed to draw a dagger and stab it into the flank of the beast. It was not deep though, the thick hide and fur turning the blade and just slicing shallowly. With a roar of rage and pain the beast swiped out, disembowelling Havol and flipping him behind it in one gruesome motion. With that done it began to race back out of the clearing. Mardon threw one of his throwing daggers and was rewarded for his skill by seeing it plunge into the beast’s back with a wet thump. The beast buckled and bucked, pain shooting through its limbs spastically. Still, it rose up and continued running. Karl tried to throw a javelin at the beast as it fled, but he had missed. The javelin lay in the ground at the edge of the clearing at an angle.

Keglan shouted something unintelligible and gave chase. The others simply tried to stand or regroup, only Blaige in any position to stop him. But Keglan barrelled past Blaige and kept going. Keglan ran past the javelin and out into the trees and thickets. He ran on, chasing the beast, spear in both hands. It took the brawny young man a few minutes to realise he could not see the beast anymore. He stopped, wits overcoming courage, and he was about to turn back. Then he felt the warm stinking breath on his neck and heard the low snarl which accompanied it. It suddenly dawned on Keglan that it was over. His face twisted into a grimace of hatred and determination. He said “Right, I’m gonna have you!” He turned as quick as he could but still too slow. The beast ripped the spear out of his hands and shredded his biceps in one fluid attack, before picking him up and tearing him apart in a cascade of blood. Tossing the separate chunks of the man aside, the beast howled in triumph. It was wounded, but had caused significant damage to the hunting party. Even as its blood trailed and pooled on the ground the beast sniffed the air, thought for a moment, and with cunning flashing in its eyes, took off for its lair.

Abandoning the plan, Leod and Corran led the others forward, Blaige and Corvil bringing up the rear. They quickly discovered the remains of Keglan, not looking too closely. Gregor pointed to the trail of blood “The beast, its headed north-west.”

Without hesitation Leod said “Follow it, this time we finish it.” The ragged group of men charged off into the night, no longer concerned with their own safety, only thinking of repaying the losses and evening the score.

Chapter Six - Follow the Trail

Leod ran, his sword was in his hand and he was intent on using it. His heart beat rapidly in his chest, and the young man could not truthfully claim that it was entirely due to the running. He was scared, Leod would not deny it. But despite his fear he was angry, he was angry that even with his plan, the beast had escaped and killed three good men. Leod hoped that anger would give him the fuel, the energy and drive to continue this fight. There was no point in leaving now, they had to fight and the only options were to kill the beast or die trying. The group was running through the woods as fast as they could go, following the trail of the beast. It was moving with great speed and was not in sight, but this speed came at the expense of stealth. While it was easily outdistancing the men, the path it had taken was clear to see, broken and snapped twigs and branches, ruined bushes and scrub, the ground roughed up by the paws of the beast, and the trails of blood here and there. It did seem to be losing quite a lot of blood, they had perhaps injured it badly, but a monstrous creature of such size might be able to lose a lot of blood without being hampered by it, at least for some time to come while adrenaline kept it going. The men had problems of their own. They were tired, the fight had been intense, the waiting suspenseful, and now running breathlessly through the woods would not help. Also Blaige was wounded, his leg bound from the wolf attack. He was now limping perceptibly, was sweating and looked a horrible pasty colour, perhaps due to blood loss or exertion. The group was moving further into the woods of Col with each passing second. Leod hoped that this was not another trap but considered that even if it was they had to try and kill the beast. There could be no turning back now. It was a choice between death and success.

Gregor was just ahead of him, with the others either to one side or behind him. Leod was the leader now; everyone seemed to have just accepted that all of a sudden. Corran had acted like an advisor, without assuming any sort of command, and Corvil had stepped aside quietly. Leod was not sure what to make of that, everyone, except perhaps Mardon, had looked up to and followed Corvil’s lead without question. Leod wondered if they were only following him because they believed it was all over, that it was hopeless but the attempt needed to be made. Actually, Leod was fine with that. He could live with being a doomed leader. Assuming I live, he thought morbidly. Leod was broken from his thoughts as Gregor whispered urgently “There’s a cave up ahead, that’s where the beast has gone to ground.”

Leod continued running until he and Gregor reached the cave mouth and skidded to a stop. The others jogged up and stopped near them. Leod tried to sound confident “Either we’ve run the beast to some random hiding place, or this is the beast’s lair. We must be careful, but there can be no turning back. Into the cave, and let’s finish this.”

The others grunted or nodded in agreement, still trying to catch their breath. With his sword held tightly Leod led the way into the cave, with Gregor at his left and Viktor to the right. The cave was dark, but the men could see just well enough to navigate. Once inside the cave they realised there were three separate tunnels running off in slightly different directions, but all leading further back into the cave. The beast was not in sight, and had clearly taken one of the tunnels. Leod frowned and said “Gregor?”

The hunter moved forward from the group and knelt down, looking at the floor of the cave. He sighed “I can’t see any tracks or anything which tells me which tunnel the beast took. I’m sorry Leod, but it looks like it gave us the slip.”

Leod was about to talk when Corvil pushed past him and said “Enough of this talkin’. I’m not waitin’ around for nothin’.” He took off at a run through the tunnel on the left before anyone could stop him.

Mardon ran after him as well. Leod moved forward and shouted “No, Mardon, get back here! Damn it all, Corvil.” He turned to the others and up his arms up “Don’t go running off. We need to split up but let’s do this sensibly. Corran, Gregor and I will take the middle tunnel. Viktor, Karl, Blaige, you will take the tunnel on the right. Good luck all of you.”

The others followed Leod’s instruction, and the six men headed off into the tunnels. There were a few final nods and waves before Leod, Corran and Gregor were alone in their chosen tunnel, and the others were out of sight. Gregor led the way, with his hunting skills, followed by Leod and Corran watching the way they had come.

Viktor led from the front as he walked into the right tunnel. His hefty axe was held tightly in his hefty arms, and the big man kept his head going left to right and back again, looking for the beast. By this time Blaige was too weak to talk, and he could not make himself heard to Karl or Viktor, who both moved ahead of him. Blaige was stuck trying to catch up with them, although Karl looked back and motioned him on every now and then. Viktor had a quick stride and he soon outdistanced the others. After rounding a corner he slowed then stopped after a few more steps. Karl arrived and said with a nervous chuckle “Thought you’d left us behind.”

Viktor shook his head “No, just went too fast.”

Blaige was further behind. He was walking slower with every step. Finally Blaige stopped and laid his sword against the tunnel wall. Reaching down to touch his covered wound, Blaige found his hand covered in blood. He was still losing a lot of blood, the wolf bite had been worse than he thought. As he picked up his weapon Blaige heard a low growl behind him, and after a sudden impact Blaige never heard anything again.

Both Viktor and Karl rushed back around the corner but it was too late. Blaige, or what was left of him, was dead and the beast was gone. Blood was sprayed up the walls of the tunnel almost to the ceiling. Silently they agreed to move on. Finding the others was the only thing they could do now.

The two men ran onwards, not paying attention to any side passages and keeping to the main tunnel, which wound this way and that. Suddenly Karl let out a yelp and his weapons hit the ground. Viktor turned in time to see the beast dragging Karl into a side tunnel. Viktor said “No! Not this time.” The large man rushed at the beast, swinging his axe. The beast was too fast though, and even as it held Karl down with one paw it ducked. Still the axe hacked off the beast’s left ear. Before Viktor could attack again the beast lashed out, gouging his face. Viktor roared in agony and clutched his face, dropping his axe as blood flowed between his fingers.

Karl groaned under the weight pressing him down and said “Run Viktor, just get away.” He was silenced as the beast bent down and gripped his head in its jaws before twisting violently. Karl’s neck snapped loudly.

Viktor staggered about, blinded by his injury and reaching out with his other hand to find the wall to steady himself. He gurgled “Not… like this… I didn’t…” The sentence was never finished as the beast pounced on the large man, even knocking someone of his size down easily.

Leod, Gregor and Corran moved through the tunnel as quickly as they could. Ahead of them, they heard shouting. Leod could not make out what was said, the resonances in the cave made it difficult. Gradually, up ahead they saw light. The three men ran into a larger cavern. Standing facing each other with weapons drawn, were Corvil and Mardon. Both men were yelling at each other. Leod and the others only caught the last thing that Corvil said “You traitorous little worm, just like your old man!”

When they realised the others had arrived both men glanced over, returned to glare at each other, and then looked back at Leod and the others. Leod said “What is going on here?”

Both Mardon and Corvil pointed at each other and said almost simultaneously “He’s working with the beast!”

Leod asked incredulously “What are you talking about?” He could scarcely believe what they were saying.

Mardon said “Corvil’s in league with the beast, he brought us here as a damn meal!”

Corvil yelled “That’s a load of gobshite. He’s the one workin’ with the beast, just like his old man was.”

Mardon snarled “That’s a filthy lie!”

Leod said “What has this got to do with Mardon’s father?”

Mardon replied “When they were young Corvil, my father and some other men heard about the beast. The same blasted beast. They came to fight it. Everyone died apart from my father and Corvil. My father was wounded and left for dead, he made it out himself, and Corvil came out without a scratch. You just think about that. He made a deal with the beast.”

Corvil said “I just got lucky. His father made a deal, and his injuries weren’t as bad as he made out. Why the oblivion would I side with a beast?”

Leod said “I don’t know why. It makes no sense, which is why I don’t believe you Mardon.”

Corran nodded “I don’t believe you either Mardon. Corvil has never done anything to make me doubt him. You on the other hand—”

“You idiots, why can’t you see what’s right in your faces?” Mardon interrupted.

Corvil growled “Enough of this.” He swung his sword but Mardon ducked under it and kicked Corvil in the gut.

Before the others could do anything Mardon ran back into the tunnel he and Corvil had taken. Corvil stood up and took a couple of breaths. He was standing in front of the tunnel that Viktor and the others had taken. It seemed that the middle and right tunnels were on one side of the cavern but the left tunnel swept around so it came out almost opposite them. Leod said “So he was working with the beast the whole time. We should have seen it sooner.”

Corvil replied “Well, the thing about that is…” As he talked the beast stalked out of the tunnel behind him “… he was actually telling the truth.” The beast moved beside Corvil as this revelation struck home for the three younger men.

Chapter Seven - Pale Morning

Leod was stunned. He did not know what to say. He had only met Corvil the previous night and yet Leod had trusted him without question. Corvil was well respected in Colgrad. The logging party, running for his life, fighting wolves and losing so many good men, it all came rushing back to him. It washed over Leod like a wave. It was dizzying and confusing. But righteous indignation grew within him. Leod was not going to allow Corvil to get away with this. It seemed neither were Corran and Gregor, as both men moved forward to stand side by side with Leod. Corran raised his two-handed sword in front of him and said dourly “Corvil is mine; try to keep the beast at bay.”

Leod nodded “We’ll do our best.” He could see the logic in this. Corvil might have turned out to be evil, but he was still an experienced fighter. Leod had virtually no experience. Corran though, was a skilled swordsman.

The three men moved slightly forward, not entirely sure what to expect. Corvil did not say anything but moved forward and sideways, his sword pointing towards Corran. He stepped lightly about until Corran was between him and Leod. The beast started doing similar, trying to keep the three young men in the centre. Suddenly the beast bounded forward and slashed at Gregor. Blade met claw in response but the claws of the beast were as tough as any sword. Leod and Gregor slashed and thrust their weapons at the beast and it ducked and weaved out of the way.

Corran and Corvil crossed blades in earnest, exchanging a quick series of attacks. The two men stopped for a moment to manoeuvre then resumed their flurry of strikes. Both of them were testing the other’s defences. Corran said through gritted teeth during the lull “Why did you do it Corvil? Why work with a beast against your own kind?”

Corvil bared his teeth in an almost feral way as he answered “Because it made sense. We had failed to kill the beast all those years ago. I bargained for my life, said I would bring the beast more people to eat. So it spared me and it ate very well. I’m a man of my word. And once we deal with you, it will continue to eat well.” He lunged into an attack but Corran dodged aside. Corvil blocked the next attack as he pivoted and stepped back. They continued their disciplined duel.

Leod saw this out of the corner of his eye and was beginning to think it was hopeless. The beast seemed just too fast and agile for them to hit. As he swung again the beast lowered its body and batted the sword away. Leod was lucky to have Gregor aiding him, as the hunter thrust from the side, forcing the beast back. The beast growled before turning quickly, running a few paces away, and then charging at the men. It ran forward and leapt. Leod and Gregor barely had time to react, but they dived out of the way. Gregor was also able to use his sword, catching the beast in the leg. It was a shallow cut, but every little helped against the monstrous creature. Leod pushed himself up and said “Plenty more where that came from beast.”

With its back to the left tunnel mouth, the beast let out an injured howl before taking wary steps forward. Out from the dark of the tunnel a figure came running. It was Mardon and he held a dagger downwards in each hand. He ran low and fast, the beast did not hear Mardon until it was too late. The lean warrior jumped high and landed on the beast’s back, plunging the daggers into the furry creature’s meaty neck. The beast roared in agony and bucked like a horse trying to throw its rider. Mardon clung on but was eventually dislodged, flipped forward while still holding the daggers.

Gregor tried to get close to help him, but in its thrashing state the beast kicked him with a hind leg, sending the hunter through the air to land a few feet away. As the beast regained its senses, it bent its head to bite Mardon’s right arm. The beast chomped down with such force that it bit clean through his arm in a welter of blood. Mardon let out a cry of pain and let go of the other dagger. The beast trampled and kicked him in its fury, and he rolled away still making a great deal of noise.

Leod was shocked beyond belief. Still, he rallied himself and moved to attack the heavily wounded beast. He whispered “You’ll kill no more this day beast.” The beast made a couple of swipes but Leod could tell its energy was flagging. He blocked once, then blocked again. Leod found himself on the attack as he slashed down and cut a gash down the length of the beast’s muzzle as it yelped almost pitifully. Leod might have stayed his hand if not for the malicious cunning which still shone in the beast’s eyes. With all his strength Leod thrust his sword into one of those eyes and pushed, sending the steel into the beast’s brain. The huge creature shuddered for a moment as those final impulses were understood before slumping sideways to the ground. Pulling out his sword, Leod ran over to Mardon. The man was quiet now, blood pumping out of the stump of his arm. As Leod knelt and turned Mardon he was surprised. He gasped “Mardon, you’re alive. What made you come back?”

Mardon said sarcastically with a forced sneer on his face “Principles…” Quickly the life faded from him and then Mardon was gone. Leod carefully laid Mardon down; ignoring the blood he was covered in and stood up.

The duel between Corran and Corvil had continued unabated. It had swung back and forth but neither of the men had a clear advantage. But now Corvil found himself beleaguered as Gregor joined the fight. Leod turned to see what was happening but did not try to engage in this. He was sure Corran and Gregor had this under control. As Corvil blocked and parried he moved backwards. He was running out of space and running out of steam. The older man swept his sword at Gregor but was blocked. His mistake was simple, fatigue had left his guard wide open and Corvil would never get his sword up in time. Corran swung high and heavily, cleaving deeply into Corvil’s throat. It did not fully decapitate the old man, but he spun and hit the wall as he fell down, dead even as he hit the ground.

The ordeal was almost over and the three surviving men stood in the cavern together wondering what to do. Sadly Leod realised that they could not bring the bodies of their friends home. All they could do was bring the tale of their heroism and sacrifice to their families. Leod looked at Corran and placed his hand reassuringly on Gregor’s shoulder as he said “It’s time we went home.”

Corran nodded “Yes, yes… Let’s get going.”

Gregor added with a sigh “We all fought hard, my family will be proud of Havol.”

“And of you Gregor.” Corran said as the three of them started to walk away towards the way out of the cave. They walked all the way through the woods of Col, just that small, ragged trio. They were exhausted but Leod knew they could not afford to stop yet.

Leod, Gregor and Corran stumbled out of the woods and into the pale morning. Leod took a few steps and then sank to his knees, his hands plunging into the ground in front of him, feeling the soil and the grass between his fingers. Corran stood beside him, numb from pain, fatigue and a grim expression on his face. Leod finally pulled his hands up and lent back, his head looking up gradually. He looked up to the horizon, seeing the pale blue sky, the grey clouds, the dark grey outlines of the buildings which made the city of Colgrad, one troubling vista stretching on forever. With a strained voice he said “Will anyone believe what happened here Corran?”

The warrior sighed deeply and replied firmly “We will make them believe Leod.”

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